This year marks the 20th anniversary of the country quartet little big city released their first album. And almost more impressive, the group is still composed of original members: Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Philip Sweetand Jimi Westbrook.
The quartet created a legacy during their two decades together, releasing soulful ballads and upbeat party starters that helped the three-time GRAMMY winners become one of the most critically acclaimed country bands of their generation. . Along the way, they forged a family bond that Westbrook and Sweet say hasn’t wavered. Their secret? “Lots of whiskey,” jokes Westbrook.
The more serious answer, however, is that they created an environment of love and respect within the group. “The number one thing is that we just try to respect each other’s lives, we love each other and we respect each other,” Westbrook adds. “And we try to take care of each other as best we can. It’s not perfect, but we try really hard.”
The 20th anniversary of Little Big Town was marked by the release of their 10th studio album, Mr Sun. The album is a representation of both how they evolved as a band and the considerable time they spent developing their sound. “We continue to grow and evolve. We know who we are. We’re inspired and excited to learn, to create new things that we’ve never done before,” Westbrook said. “I feel like we’re only scratching the surface of what we can do.”
Just after Mr SunUpon arrival, GRAMMY.com caught up with Westbrook and Sweet on Zoom to reflect on some of their biggest hits and get to grips with some tracks from their latest set.
“Little White Church” The reason why (2010)
Westbrook: We knew we loved him. It was fun. And there was just a great attitude and spirit. So I think we had high hopes for that, but you never know. I just remember the whole process of writing this back when we were working with Wayne Kirkpatrick, who was such a godsend in our career and early on. I remember writing it that day, [and] This is very fun. We wrote it down pretty quickly, then headed out to a barbecue to celebrate. We always celebrate with food. [Laughs]
[For the video] I just remember we were in the woods. One way out through this weird spooky ghost story. It was the weirdest weekend. I lost my precious 1932 Gibson guitar.
Sweet: Also, I remember we walked forever. There was a lot of walking and there was a cameraman following us who had to run backwards while he filmed the whole thing. And I think he drank too much the night before. It didn’t end well.
“Bled,” The road to here (2005)
Westbrook: We were working with Wayne Kirkpatrick, as Jimi mentioned earlier, who is just a handsome human. He was a boon to our life. We were actually working on another song called “Bones” which is on the same record. These two songs kind of popped together. “Bones” and “Boondocks” became the cornerstones of this particular record.
We were talking about how they told us that we were an assembled group and we were like, “No, we are, we are not. We are who we are.” We had to talk about where we were from, and that’s where “Boondocks” came from.
Sweet: Nothing like playing this song. It’s still my favorite thing. It doesn’t matter where we are. It’s really fun to come home and I mean, I can’t stop thinking about it. Especially when you have friends in the audience, like people I grew up with. You can’t help but feel this connection, and it gives you a sense of pride. You feel like they know your story. And it’s so much fun every night. The reaction is so heartfelt from the crowd with that one too – man, this is going to lift you up.
Westbrook: We played with Lindsey Buckingham in 2006, at the CMT crossroads. And he had something really unique to say about it. He said, “It doesn’t matter where you’re from. This song just resonates with where you’re from.” And that’s what we wanted when we were writing it.
“Pontoon,” Tornado (2012)
Westbrook: I got an email from a friend saying “hey, listen to this song”, and it went on for a bit. Then we went back to it later and listened to it again. And that really struck a chord. It’s just such an original and cool song. The groove is so good. That’s what we loved, that swagger he had in the groove. People really got a hold of him when he came out.
Sweet: There is so much joy in this song. When we heard it, that’s what we felt. It was instantaneous. There was a vibe, there was a quirkiness that we loved.
Westbrook: It goes really well at festivals – in the summer everyone hangs out with a drink in their hands. A lot of times we’ll start the shows with that, because [with] that lick, immediately everyone knows what it is.
“Drinking Day”, Pain Killer (2014)
Sweet: It was me, Philip and Karen writing with Troy Verges and Barry Dean. It was just one of those lovely days spent with your friends. Troy brought his mando that day and started the vibe with that lick. We started drinking during the day, because we felt it was just fine.
“Crush on another girl,” Pain killer (2014)
Westbrook: We knew from the beginning that there were some performances, you know, on country radio, that made a bit of noise. And I like it. That’s the beauty of music — those are people’s stories. And these stories are interpreted differently in all sorts of ways.
I’m just proud of this song. It was such a catapult moment for our group. This song is so special, and it resonates deeply with people, and we are grateful for that, of course.
Sweet: It was just nice to – I mean, in a weird way – to stir it up. It got people thinking, it got people moving, and unlike any other song we’ve ever released before. So for that reason, I’m really grateful too.
We were lucky — the girls in our group went to write with [Lori McKenna, Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose, aka the Love Junkies] literally the day after writing this song. And they were saying in their session, “play something you just wrote” and that’s what they played.
Westbrook: Karen and Kimberly locked this one out instantly. Like, “you can’t play this for someone else.”
It was very intentional to make the track skeletal and haunting and, like, empty, because that’s how your emotion would feel. And that was clearly the goal.
“Best Man,” The Breaker (2016)
Sweet: We have known Taylor Swift for a long time, since she was only just starting out in the business. And we were doing label showcases together when she was very young, and we recognized the confidence that she had. So we have always stayed connected and have always been friends. She had our e-mails and such.
She emailed me and said, “Hey, I’ve got the song. I’ve got the demo. I was just thinking about your harmonies when I was writing it. So check it out. No depression.”
It was 2016. We were on tour with Luke Bryan and we were making a record with Pharrell Williams [2016’s Wanderlust]. I played it for the guys on tour and we were all like, ‘Holy smokes, man, that’s a really good song’, and I [knew I] need to register it. I’m just grateful she sent it to us.
“Mister Sun” Mr Sun (2022)
Westbrook: Sarah Buxton sent us this song, and from the first time we heard it, it has such a vibe. Another truly classic melody. I love a good melancholic song. And that’s how “Mr. Sun” feels. Because you think with “Mr. Sun” it’s going to be a brilliant song, but it’s a little blue.
“A rich man,” Mr Sun (2022)
Sweet: Jimi wrote this song. I’ve been hearing this song in the locker room and backstage for about 10 years. He said it wasn’t really quite over. We actually attempted to record this several years ago, but it was one of those that was in the ether. Then Jimi said he finished it. And I said, “Man, that’s just beautiful.”
We were playing new music for friends and they were like ‘play something we haven’t heard’. We played them “Rich Man” and their reaction was so genuine and visceral.
We were done with the file. And then the fact that we went there and ended the album with ‘Rich Man’ was just perfect. It was like the perfect little piece of the puzzle that we didn’t even know [we needed]. It made him so beautiful. It was perfect for this record.
Westbrook: It’s the one he kept dragging. I kept coming back to it, then, about a year ago, I finally felt like I had it wrapped up the way I wanted. I wasn’t even sure anyone would hear it. It was kinda mine. This is my own story in my heart for my family. But it’s really cool that he found his place in the album.
“Three whiskeys and the truth”, Mr Sun (2022)
Sweet: Karen, Kimberly and Lori McKenna, Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose, they got together and they didn’t invite the boys. But they wrote this together and it’s so beautiful. I think it’s just one of the most beautiful melodies.
Westbrook: Captivating too. You feel this loneliness.
Sweet: Kimberly always says it in interviews – when they get together, like the girls and the Love Junkies, it’s a safe place. It’s a place where you can just speak from your heart, your emotions. And they do that. And man, what beautiful things come out of this room.
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